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Bonfires and the Sound of Drums


It is a moonless night when a young man dressed in the noble clothes of a maharlika arrives on a vinta on the shores of the Island of Zubu. He is accompanied by a foreigner, a slight man whose age is impossible to fathom and who wears a long white robe that blows in the breeze. As the vinta draws closer, flame torches, numbering up to fifty, line the beach in welcome while further ahead, bonfires are lit and the furious sound of drumbeats echo in the darkness.

“Is it to celebrate your return, my friend, after having been away for many years?” The foreigner asks in fluent, albeit grammatically incorrect, bisaya.

“No. The celebration won’t be until tomorrow. This is a different matter.”

“I’m curious.”

The young noble explains, “The moon has not been sighted in the island for more than ten years. The elders of the village believe that it has been eaten by the Bakunawa so they order the people to light bonfires and make this noise every fourteen days in order to annoy the beast and force it to spit out the moon.”

“And tonight is one such night?” The foreigner asks.

“Yes. Ever since I can remember, this has been the ritual here.”

The foreigner is quiet for a moment, before he turns to his companion with a puzzled frown. “Bakunawa?”

The young noble looks at him and smiles kindly. “Some say it takes the shape of a giant serpent that lives in the bowels of the ocean. Others say it’s a sea-creature, half-man, half-fish, its body covered in multicolored scales. There are various versions of the story, depending on who tells it. But one of the elders, my teacher, believes that there is no such beast, only angry gods who punish us for our misdeeds and that this punishment will continue until we realize what those misdeeds are and atone for them.”

“Your teacher must not be very popular, my friend,” the foreigner notes.

The young noble just smiles and gazes ahead at approaching torch-bearers. “Our transport, my friend,” he tells the foreigner.

There were six of them, large men with thick, burly arms. Four hold the torches. The other two waste no time in offering themselves to the young noble who oblige by lowering himself from the boat onto one man’s back. “This way your clothes won’t get wet,” the young noble says. After a brief hesitation, the foreigner copies his movement.

On the shore, the young noble and his foreign companion are met by a small retinue of men and women. Some of them are dressed like the young noble – in silk and the finest batik cloths. Others wear malong wrapped around their bodies like sheets. Then a man, wearing a red kangan and an ornate kris tied around his waist, steps from the crowd.

“Datu Banog, my nephew,” the man in the red kangan says.

Banog (for that was the young noble’s given name) looks surprised at first, then smiles in pleasure. “My uncle, Datu Uwak,” he greets.

The two men clasp each other’s arms. They study each other, looking at what the years have done to the other’s countenance. Banog notices the red kangan, a color that belongs to the ruling clan of Zubu and until then has been worn only by the chieftain, the Rajah, his father. But whatever suspicion may have been created by this discovery is delayed by the joy of his return. For his part, Datu Uwak observes the fact that Banog is now a grown man with a grown man’s strength and weaknesses.

“So, you brought dayo with you,” Datu Uwak says, glancing at the foreigner who came in the vinta with the Rajah’s son.

“Yes.” Banog turns to the foreigner. “This is Cheng Xiao-hu, a brilliant poet and my friend whom I met while I was in Mintolang these past ten years.”

“You flatter me.” To Datu Uwak, the foreigner says, “I am but the lowly son of a tea merchant, originally from Funan before settling in Mintolang five years ago. As for being a poet, I am still learning to be one.”

“My friend is humble, is he not, my uncle?”

“Indeed,” Datu Uwak answers noncommittally, already turning away, “but come, nephew, your father and your sister await your arrival.”

At the mention of his immediate family, the young man’s noble countenance slips a little, revealing a worried frown. “Pray, how is father, uncle? And Maya…I did not know she has come.”

“The Rajah is doing better than he has in years. But his illness still prevents him from attending to all the responsibilities of his position. Datu Agila – you remember him – he now leads the pintados.”

“The pintados!” Banog exclaims with some surprise. “Agila is their leader?”

Datu Uwak nods. “When the Rajah’s health turned for the worse last summer, he intended to name Datu Siloy as his successor to the leadership of the Pintado clan. But Agila sparred with Datu Siloy for the position and won.”

In a pleased voice, Banog says, “But then father used to say that Agila is by far the best warrior he has ever seen. He was proven right when Agila became the youngest warrior to join the Pintado clan at the age of fifteen, no older than I am now really.”

This, Uwak already knows, so Banog’s exposition is mainly for the benefit of Cheng Xiao-hu who listens with obvious fascination. “Is it true what I heard that the more paint covers a warrior’s body, the more excellent they are at fighting?”

“The best warriors have nearly their entire bodies covered in henna,” Banog affirms. “But come, my friend, you will learn more of the pintados on the morrow. For now, let us make our way to the village. Uncle?”

At this, Datu Uwak signals a group of alipin leading three large-horned buffaloes called carabaos. On the back of each of these beasts are a deep red malong cloth and a silk cushion tied in place with baging ropes. One alipin goes on all fours, offering his back for the young noble to step on as he carefully balances himself on the beast. The same is done for the other two – Datu Uwak and the foreigner Cheng Xiao-hu. Then, after they are all seated, the three of them and their welcoming party slowly head towards the direction of the bonfires and the sound of drums.

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